China’s New Approach to South China Sea Disputes Makes Maritime Code of Conduct Unlikely

Posted on July 12, 2012


SHANGHAI — Following a period of relatively aggressive behavior from 2009 to 2011, recent events suggest that Beijing is pursuing a new strategy on the region’s high seas, perhaps in response to Washington’s Asia pivot. China’s new approach involves asserting sovereignty through civilian actors on a day-to-day basis while adopting a less explicitly abrasive military posture. Going into this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, where hopes for agreement on a maritime code of conduct are rising, it seems China would need to radically alter this strategy to participate fully in any such arrangement.

For manifest geostrategic reasons, threat perceptions associated with China’s rise have been highly concentrated on the Asian littoral. The rapid escalation of China’s economic activity, naval capability and need for natural resources have introduced new pressures on managing relations in local waters, even as Beijing’s more self-assured stance in international affairs seems to have translated into firmer positioning on the multiple territorial disputes in the region.

While China’s relative resilience following the global financial crisis undoubtedly enhanced its status as an international player and underscored its economic leadership in Asia, a series of inflammatory incidents on the Asian littoral between 2009 and 2011 significantly undermined these gains in overall strategic terms. Apart from the notorious claim of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, Beijing also strained relations with regional players through its unswerving support for North Korea throughout the Cheonan incident, when North Korea allegedly sank a South Korean warship, and the disproportionate escalation of tensions over the Senkaku Islands after Japanese authorities detained a Chinese fishing boat captain.

However, while these incidents were accompanied by a strong official reaction from Beijing, more-recent episodes have been characterized by a distinct absence of official comment or public statement. This could be seen as a recognition by Beijing that its previous belligerence served little strategic purpose, instead enhancing perceptions of fragmentation and unpredictability within Chinese foreign policy institutions.

Recent public slap-downs of military top brass by President Hu Jintao and other senior civilian leaders, not to mention an apparent shift in the balance of power on the Central Military Commission, supports speculation that the government may have taken steps to rein in errant elements that were damaging foreign policy strategy. And while problems of strategic incoherence remain, the rhetorical tone from Beijing is unquestionably less aggressive.

However, at the same time, China has begun to assert its sovereignty more forcefully through nonmilitary means. This includes mapping and patrol work, fishing expeditions and energy resource exploration in disputed waters. For example, four patrol boats from the China Marine Surveillance this week completed their first tour of the South China Sea from their base in Sanya, Hainan. Moreover, China National Offshore Oil Company drew protests from Hanoi by announcing it would open bidding for energy concessions also claimed by Vietnam.

Although Chinese assertion of sovereignty through such means is not an entirely new phenomenon, with its military posture less overtly aggressive than 12-24 months ago, the civilian element of Beijing’s assertiveness has gained prominence. As China focuses on developing its noncombat military capabilities and increasing offshore energy production, the incidence of flashpoints will inevitably rise. Nor has the military threat been completely withdrawn — a military spokesman recently claimed China has begun combat-ready patrols in the vicinity of the disputed Spratly Islands. Meanwhile, Vice Adm. Wang Dengping, recently appointed commander of the South Sea Fleet, is known as a hawk and oversaw the introduction of China’s first aircraft carrier as head of the North Sea Fleet.

Of course, China is by no means the only party that could be accused of inflammatory behavior. Japan this week announced it was negotiating with a private owner to nationalize the Senkaku Islands, while smaller regional players, such as the Philippines and Vietnam, have moved closer to the U.S. in defense terms. However, nearly all the region’s most sensitive territorial disputes involve China, and these tensions are a major roadblock to regional integration and development as a whole, hindering both bilateral and multilateral improvement of the regional defense architecture.

In a welcome sign of constructive progress, delegates at the ASEAN summit in Phnom Penh later this week intend to push ahead on developing a code of conduct for regional waters. The initiative has prompted U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell to point toward “an increase in diplomacy” between ASEAN and China.

ASEAN should in theory be one of the best mechanisms for arriving at a multilateral solution, and Beijing seems open to negotiations on the issue. But China is unlikely to make any major concessions to the Manila-led code of conduct initiative and has a poor record of upholding international agreements in any case. Indeed, Chinese boats have recently been seen fishing on the Scarborough Shoal, despite both Beijing and Manila having nominally suspended all fishing activities in the waters.

As such, expectations are low for the Phnom Penh summit, despite apparent U.S. and regional support for the code of conduct. Territorial disputes are often historically sensitive and relate to a wide range of strategic issues, from national pride to resource needs to geostrategic considerations, meaning national governments have limited flexibility in negotiations. Moreover, pushing the boundaries of acceptable conduct under maritime law has become a primary mechanism for Beijing to assert its claims of sovereignty. Signing a code of conduct would nominally prevent this kind of behavior, making it difficult to envisage a major breakthrough any time soon.

So despite China’s apparent change of tack on the Asian littoral, which can be seen as a response to Washington’s Asia pivot and a recognition by Beijing that excessive saber-rattling is counterproductive, intractable issues continue to underpin the region’s multiple territorial disputes. Tentative regional efforts to standardize behavior and ensure all parties play by the rules are encouraging, but they will take some time to yield tangible benefits, particularly with nearly all of the fundamental drivers of increased tensions being scaled up, rather than down.

Iain Mills

China Pushes Asean on Development in Seas

Children play next to supplies of the the fishing boats where a former Philippine Marine officer and his volunteers were to set sail for the disputed Scarborough shoal. Photograph: Ted Aljibe via AFP/GettyImages

China repeated a call for joint development of energy resources in waters claimed by Vietnam and the Philippines before a regional security meeting today that includes U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Envoys from 26 Asia-Pacific nations and the European Union are meeting in Phnom Pehn, Cambodia, to discuss security concerns in the region. China warned nations this week to avoid mentioning the territorial spat, which Clinton called a “critical issue” two days ago in a visit to Vietnam.

“Pending the settlement of the disputes, the parties concerned may put aside their differences and engage in joint development,” Zhang Jianmin, spokesman for the Chinese delegation to the meetings, told the official Xinhua News yesterday. “China will always be a good neighbor, good friend and good partner for other Asia-Pacific countries,” he said.

The Philippines and Vietnam reject China’s map of the waters as a basis for joint development and have sought a regional solution to increase their bargaining power with Asia’s biggest military spender. Clinton has urged the countries to define their territory based on the United Nations Law of the Sea, a move China has resisted because it may lead to a loss of some waters it now claims.

Vietnam Oil & Gas Group (PVD), known as PetroVietnam, last month called for China National Offshore Oil Corp., the government- owned parent of Cnooc Ltd., to cancel an invitation for foreign companies to explore nine blocks that overlap with areas awarded to Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) (XOM), Moscow-based OAO Gazprom and India’s Oil & Natural Gas Co. PetroVietnam will continue exploring in the area, Chief Executive Officer Do Van Hau told reporters on June 28.

Energy Resources
Chinese vessels last year cut the cables of a PetroVietnam survey ship and chased away a boat in waters delimited by the Philippines. The region is estimated to have as much as 30 billion metric tons of oil and 16 trillion cubic meters of gas, which would account for about one-third of China’s oil and gas resources, according to Xinhua. China had 2 billion tons of proven oil reserves and 99 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in 2010, according to BP Plc estimates.

China has also clashed with Japan over a disputed island chain known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, where both countries have sent patrol boats in recent weeks. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told Japanese counterpart Koichiro Gemba yesterday in Phnom Penh that he hopes Japan will appropriately handle problems in the bilateral relationship, Xinhua reported.

Enforceable Code
Asean countries, including four with claims in the South China Sea, reached an agreement this week on rules for operating in the waters and will seek talks with China. The Philippines called for an enforceable code of conduct during a meeting of envoys from Asean, China, Japan and South Korea, according to a statement citing Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario.

He called for “the eventual realization of a credible, binding and enforceable regional Code of Conduct in the South China Sea,” according to the statement.

Asean has achieved a “milestone” because all countries are now committed to agree to a legally binding code of conduct, according to Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan. Last year, Asean and China agreed on guidelines to implement a non-binding agreement signed in 2002.

The 2002 Asean-China statement calls on signatories to avoid occupying disputed islands, inform others of military exercises and resolve territorial disputes peacefully. The eight guidelines approved last year say activities in the sea should be step-by-step, on a voluntary basis and based on consensus.

“The fact that it’s on the right track it’s already lessening the anxiety of the international community and of the regional states that there could be some potential conflicts and tension in the region,” Surin said in Phnom Penh yesterday.


US tries to balance values, economies in Asia

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The Obama administration now has a taste of the difficult diplomacy necessary to sharpen the focus of American power on Asia, seeking investment opportunities alongside reforms from rights-abusing governments and working with China while defending U.S. interests.

From democratic Mongolia to once-hostile Vietnam and long-isolated Laos, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton this week faced governments eager to embrace the United States as a strategic counterweight to China’s expanding military and economic dominance of the region, while still lukewarm about American demands for greater democracy and rule of law.

And after meeting face-to-face with China’s foreign minister Thursday as she began to wrap up a weeklong tour of Asia, Clinton lauded Washington’s cooperation with Beijing even as she took up the case of several Southeast Asian nations threatened by the communist government’s expansive claims over the resource-rich South China Sea.

In the discussions across the world’s most populous continent, U.S. officials outlined their belief in greater democracy and freedom for Asian nations. The vision is part of a larger Obama administration effort to change the direction of U.S. diplomacy and commercial policy and redirect it to the place most likely to become the center of the global economy over the next century.

It is also a reaction to the region’s slide toward undemocratic China as its economy has boomed and America’s has struggled.

“As we’ve traveled across Asia, I’ve talked about the breadth of American engagement in this region, especially our work to strengthen economic ties and support democracy and human rights,” Clinton told reporters Thursday. “This is all part of advancing our vision of an open, just and sustainable regional order for the Asia-Pacific.”

Clinton will meet Friday with Myanmar’s reformist President Thein Sein and introduce him to American business leaders looking for investment opportunities. The U.S. eased sanctions on the once reclusive military dictatorship this week, opening up new opportunities for the administration as it seeks to double American exports.

Still, Clinton said she would urgeThein Sein to do more. “Political prisoners remain in detention,” she said. “Ongoing ethnic and sectarian violence continues to undermine progress toward national reconciliation, stability and lasting peace. And fundamental reforms are required to strengthen the rule of law and increase transparency.”

The tour started in Japan, where Clinton assured a long-time ally the U.S. was committed to its security. From there, she visited four countries in China’s backyard, part of a larger economic area among the world’s most dynamic. Up to now, however, China has taken the most advantage.

In each place, Clinton was careful to make the case for American values alongside American business aspirations. It’s unclear, however, if both messages were received.

In Ulan Bator, she credited Mongolia with liberalizing economically as well as politically, holding it up as a foil to the Chinese model of growth without freedom. And she offered deeper U.S. partnerships with communist governments in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which have looked to Washington for fear of being swallowed up by China’s expanding power.

But while two-way trade between Vietnam and the U.S. has soared by 40 percent in the last two years, there has been little improvement in the Vietnamese government’s respect for dissidents. Laos may seek similar business relations with the U.S., but has yet to show any willingness to rectify its poor labor rights record.

What Washington doesn’t want with these countries is what it has with Beijing, a partnership of unprecedented economic integration that stops when the discussion turns to human rights, democracy or sharing a vision for the world. It’s a relationship that neither side appears able to change, both equally reliant on the other’s goods and consumers, while mistrustful of the other’s intentions.

“We are committed to working with China within a framework that fosters cooperation where interests align, and manages differences where they don’t,” Clinton said.

In probably her most difficult work of the week, Clinton pressed Beijing on Thursday to accept a code of conduct for resolving territorial disputes in the South China Sea, a U.S. mediation effort that has faced resistance from China..

Meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ annual gathering, Clinton stressed the different ways Washington and Beijing are cooperating, while Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi spoke of building even closer U.S.-Chinese ties.

Neither side mentioned the South China Sea while reporters were in the room. Afterward, according to U.S. officials, they got into the sensitive talk of the South China Sea, an issue that has caused grave concerns among China’s neighbors and the wider world as tensions have threatened to boil over amid standoffs between Chinese and Philippine ships and competing Chinese and Vietnamese claims.

While China’s claim over the entire area has driven countries closer to Washington, countless hours of talks between U.S. and Chinese officials haven’t led to progress on a lasting solution. The waters host about a third of the world’s cargo traffic, rich fishing grounds and vast oil and gas reserves – economic opportunities the U.S. would be locked out of if China were to seize total control.

Clinton, however, again framed it as a question of principles.

“The United States has no territorial claims there and we do not take sides in disputes about territorial or maritime boundaries,” she told foreign ministers gathered in Cambodia’s capital. “But we do have an interest in freedom of navigation, the maintenance of peace and stability, respect for international law and unimpeded lawful commerce in the South China Sea.”

She singled out “confrontational behavior” in the disputed Scarborough Shoal off northwestern Philippines, including the denial of access to other vessels. The actions she cited were China’s, though she didn’t mention the offending country by name.

“We have seen worrisome instances of economic coercion and the problematic use of military and government vessels in connection with disputes among fishermen,” she said. “There have been a variety of national measures taken that create friction and further complicate efforts to resolve disputes.”

Despite publicly exhorting both China and Southeast Asian nations to diplomatically settle their disputes, a State Department release made no mention of the issue and instead spoke of Sino-American cooperation on everything from disaster relief to tiger protection. The issues were clearly secondary, but reflected an effort to compartmentalize any confrontation with Beijing and paint a larger picture of collaboration.


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